What triggers us to leave a situation?

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There are many reasons why we seek to make major changes in our lives. Helen Ebaugh, prior to being a scholar and writing her book “Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit”, was a nun. One day, she decided to leave the order after its management made major organisational changes that were no longer aligned with her beliefs. She then joined Colombia University in New York where she studied “role exit”.


Professor Ebaugh interviewed over 185 people who had made a major life change, including other “ex” nuns but also divorcees, transsexuals and many others. As a result, she listed the following four key triggers that influenced her interviewees to make a life change:

  • organisational changes
  • burnout
  • disappointments
  • major changes in a relationship


Ebaugh’s lists mainly external influences, but other authors like James Hollis and William Ridges, also add intrinsic ones like psychological insights, changes in our values or beliefs, spiritual growth or deepening our social and political awareness. There are also other triggers like becoming ill or recovering from illness or the death of someone dear, which might all incite us to change our life style.


Organisational changes are prevalent and often the main influencing factors for individuals to seek an alternative work role. Some changes might be abrupt whilst others will be progressive and might slowly erode one’s positive perceptions of the organisation that they belong to. In addition to a change in direction, changes in an organisation’s structure will generally have a ripple effect. For example, one’s career advancement aspirations might be blocked as a result of the restructure. Others might fear losing their skills, status, autonomy or control. Changes in team composition or management will also greatly influence individuals to move on. Once a team has “jelled”, dismantling it can be devastating for team members, creating a sense of loss of one’s working community, feeling of camaraderie and belonging.


Burnouts are also on the rise. According to recent results of a longitudinal study conducted by Professor Paul Richardson and Associate Profession Helen Watt from Monash University, one in four teachers will experience burnout. The Australian Bureau of Statistics also indicates an increase in the average working hours, which they call “overemployment”. Many people are therefore getting exhausted and fatigued, which impacts on their sense of integrity as they notice being more irritable with clients, colleagues and family members. This was the case for me. I worked very long hours and was doing tasks that were becoming increasingly removed from my deep aspirations and needs. I was spending more time managing paperwork than coaching, counselling or supporting people to flourish, which is my passion.


Disappointments and disillusions in both relationships and at work are other instigators of life changes. Often, it is the young adult who feels such disappointments, says Ebaugh. Images of relationships and career prospects are often unrealistically depicted in the media and by education institutions. So, when graduates start working, they often feel disillusioned by the reality of their new job. The same goes shortly after they have engaged in an intimate relationship.


Of course, there are also changes in a previously stable relationship that can generate disillusionment. One of the two partners might have an affair or start behaving in ways that are no longer acceptable to the other. Unless the couple communicates well or seeks support, such events are likely going to trigger a separation.


There are often cues that indicate that we need to make a change. Becoming aware of these can help us make more timely decisions about a change. Are there any cues for you? Below are some cues that others have recorded in their change process.



  • Check for burnout cues like regularly feeling uneasy, irritable, fatigued, sluggish, unmotivated, tearful or depressed.
  • Check for changes in your typical behaviours such as an increase in your alcohol consumption, insomnia, adopting unhealthy eating habits, impulsive buying, etc.
  • Check for relationship cues such as lack of intimacy, changes in sexual activities, lack of joy, increased frequency of arguments and conflicts, and any form of abuse (emotional, verbal, financial, physical…)
  • Check for inner change cues such as questioning your values, life’s meaning and purpose, spirituality, desire to get more involved socially or politically, etc.
  • Discuss cues with closed friends. They often pick them up before you do!


Further Readings

Ebaugh, H. R. B. (1988). Becoming an ex: The process of role exit. Chicago, IL: University of

Chicago Press.


Hollis, J. (2006). Finding meaning in the second half of life. NY: Gotham Books.


Bridges, W. (2014). Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes. Cambridge: MA: First Da Capo Press.


Watt, H.M.G. & Richardson, P.W. (2011). FIT-Choice: Attracting and sustaining ‘fit’ teachers in the profession. Professional Educator, 10(2), 28-29.

Copyright © 2015 by Sylvie Vanasse. All rights reserved